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Shadow theatre is a unique kind of performing art which is close to puppetry, but differs from it in the sense that while in puppet theatre the audience directly sees the puppet figures, in shadow theatre they only see the shadow cast on the screen. There is a light source and a screen and in between the manipulator inserts the flat figures by lightly pressing them on the screen so that a sharp shadow is formed.  Usually, the figures in the shadow theatre are made of leather.  They are carefully stenciled so that their shadows suggest their clothing, jewellery and other accoutrements.  Some of the figures have jointed limbs which, when manipulated, give the appearance of beautiful moving shadows.

India has a very long and rich tradition of Shadow theatre.  According to many scholars, this art originated in India.  Reference to shadow theatre is found in the Tamil classic Shilappadikaaram.  Many Western Indologists such as Pischel, Luders and Winternitz are of the opinion that the well-known Sanskrit drama Mahaanaataka was originally written as a play for the Shadow Theatre. This art form is, thus, at least one thousand years old. Apparently it went to Southeast Asia, Turkey and other places from India.

Shadow theatre is prevalent in the states of Orissa, Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In the shadow theatre forms of the first three states, the shadows are black and white while those from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are multi-coloured. The shadow theatre in Orissa is known as Raavana Chhaya or shadow of Ravana.  It is rather strange that in this form, while the story is based on Rama, the theatre itself is named after Ravana. The shadow theatre in Maharashtra is known as Camdyaachaa Bahulye, meaning figures made of leather.  It is also known as Chitra Marathigaru.  Here also the themes are largely drawn from the legend of Rama. In Karnataka there are two styles of shadow theatre, both known as Togalu gombeatta. One style uses very large size figures ranging from 1-1.5 metres and the other style uses smaller figures ranging from six inches to two and a half feet.  The figures are made of goatskin, which is first treated to translucency and then stenciled and coloured. The themes are drawn from Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Puranic episodes. It came into Karnataka from its organizer Kattare Kalachari who hailed from Maharastra. The shadow theatre in Karnataka is also referred as Killekyathru. There are several families which perform in their respective areas and are known by different names such as Gombberama Chakkai Gobbeyata, Togalu Gobbeyata. Thol Pava-Kuthu or Pavaikottu, the shadow theatre of Kerala again thrives exclusively on the stories of Rama. Andhra Pradesh has the strongest tradition in shadow theatre, which is known by the name Tholubommalata. Here, the figures range in height from 1.2 to 1.82 metres and are the largest among the other shadow theatre forms.

Most of the leather forms of the shadow theatre are the masterpieces of folk-art. Usually the deer skin and goat hides are used, as they could be rendered transparent and easily absorb different colors and last for centuries. The raw hides are first treated with solution of common salt or caustic soda and are then dried. They are then painted with deep colours extracted from locally available plants and rocks. Different parts of a doll are obtained from these hides and are joined in such a way that the body, limbs, head and hands could be moved with ease.

During a puppetry performance in a village, a rectangular stage is set up by using split bamboo and woolen blankets (Kambli). The performance is commenced with an invocation to Lord Ganesha and Saraswati. In order to announce that the show is about to commence a pair of buffoons Silekyatha and his hilarious wife, Bangarakka makes an appearance on the screen. They attract the audience by observations, gestures, jokes and comments on village affairs. The core of the performance is enacted during which detailed and dramatically prolonged episodes from Ramayana, Mahabharata, stories from Puranas and the Devi scriptures are presented. The headman, his wife and children, gives the male, female, and children voices respectively. The music is provided by rubbing a reed on the back of a bell-metal dish, a mukha-veena or a harmonium. The themes depend on the occasions for which the Puppeteers are invited. They perform "Krishna Leela" on birthdays, "Girija Kalyana" on wedding days and "Swargarohana" when a death takes place.


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